Me at ABC’s The Drum today:
The BDS movement is a logical and non-violent response to human rights abuses in Palestine, so why is it being threatened in a country like America that prides itself on free speech, asks Antony Loewenstein.
It seems barely a week passes without a student union or corporation somewhere in the world taking a public stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Many now state that they’re following the dictates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a way to protest ongoing colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza which remains in breach of international law. In America, where free speech is a long-held tradition, BDS faces multiple attacks against its legitimacy and legal right to be heard, as well as allegations of anti-Semitism.
Today it’s clear that the US political system and, in my view, the sham “peace process” is little more than cover for ongoing and illegal settlement expansion; BDS is rising globally in popularity and coverage partly due to this fact. Even The Australian’s Middle East reporter John Lyons in his paper, the most pro-Israel publication in the country, last weekend accused Australian Zionist leaders of ignoring the human cost of the occupation. For some citizens BDS is seen as a logical, humane and non-violent response to these abuses in Palestine (abuses which countries like the US, UK, and Australia only denounce through lip service). This right, to condemn Israeli actions, should be a fundamental tenet of any democracy.
The only official answer, offered by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, is falsely accusing BDS of anti-Semitism. At the recent Israel lobby AIPAC conference in Washington, Netanyahu mentioned BDS many times – so much for it being irrelevant and ineffectual as Zionists often claim – and said its adherents were just the latest believers in anti-Semitism. It’s a slur that many people dismiss, hence the gradual rise in BDS support.
Just this week the National University of Galway passed a motion in support of BDS and therefore became Ireland’s first student union to get on-board. The reason for this move was made clear in the public statement: “Institutional collusion between NUI Galway and Israeli oppression, such as NUI Galway’s use of G4S, the international security company notorious for its provision of security and incarceration ‘services’ to Israel’s inhumane prison regime.”
Last month the student union at the University of Kent decided to sever its ties with G4S and find another provider for assisting the union with a cash handling role. The complicity of G4S in breaching human rights is global, from Australian-run detention centres to poorly run British immigration houses, and cutting ties with the English multinational is gathering steam. The message is clear; hit a company and its shareholders where it hurts, the bottom line.
In the US, politicians and conservative commentators are arguing for the criminalisation of BDS. This would have a chilling effect on free speech in a nation that likes to pride itself on the sanctity of the First Amendment. Perhaps surprisingly, given the American press insulates Americans from the brutal, daily reality of Israeli actions, opposition has been encouragingly strong.
Back in December the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed BDS and the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli universities due to their complicity in the Israeli infrastructure of occupation. Individual Israeli academics would not be targeted but any official association with the Israeli state would end until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law”.
As a result of this strong and principled stance, echoing the campaign against apartheid South Africa, other state legislatures pledged to help Israel. New York politicians wanted to pass a bill that would have blocked the state from funding academic groups that supported the idea. I wonder if this political enthusiasm was more about securing funding for future political campaigns than an actual belief in Israel. Whatever the case, free speech was threatened and many politicians are still pledging to take action.
The New York Times editorialised (before the bill failed) and wrote that it “would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent. Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel”.
The Maryland General Assembly also recently moved to insulate Israel from criticism with a similar bill and even the Washington Post, a strident backer of Israel, condemned it. Maryland may well still back this bill – it has not been quashed.
There are countless other moves to silence free speech over legitimate criticism of Israel, including members of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) being told in early March that their chapter had been suspended for at least a year. The reason that university administrators said the students needed to undergo training was principally due to the group distributing notices across campus that parodied similar eviction notices placed on Palestinian homes targeted for Israeli demolition. Astoundingly, the police were called in to investigate. And this all for just distributing brochures.
This example and many others are why a number of US academics, including Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi, signed a recent statement that read in part:
“It is important to recognise that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression … We are now witnessing accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS. We ask cultural and educational institutions to have the courage and the principle to stand for, and safeguard, the very principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas that make those institutions possible.”
This message must be the core of any reasonable public debate over BDS. Disagreeing with its aim is a legitimate position, of course, but a free society, in America or beyond, is defined by the ability to both tolerate and encourage speech and views that some may find repugnant. American Jewish leaders are waking up to the BDS “threat” and aiming to counter with a pro-Israel message. It’s unlikely that slicker PR will be enough.
The strength of BDS, explained by Jewish Voice for Peace head Rebecca Vilkomerson this month, is that it’s forcing self-described liberals to struggle with the once accepted idea that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic when all the evidence is proving its impossibility. “As a people who have experienced over and over the trauma of refugee-hood and longing for homeland,” she argues, “how can we possibly deny the validity of the right of return for Palestinians? And which do we value more: our fears or our respect for the universality of rights for all people?”
The building debate over Israel/Palestine, with Jews and Arabs, is increasingly about enlarging the tent of public discussion and articulating why virtually all points of view (except for Holocaust denial) must be integral to mature contemporary debate.
A society that believes in free speech would welcome a multitude of views over the Middle East. Trying to intimidate or silence critics of Israel, and its ongoing occupation, is not the way to engender support for the Jewish state.